Located just 11 miles east off the tip of Long Island, the remote Fishers Island could be considered Southold Town’s forgotten hamlet.
The island has 236 year-round residents, who live 2 1/2 hours by boat from the New York mainland and are served by their own school system, police station, utility company and ferry district. And soon, Fishers Island may become Long Island’s easternmost village, supplanting East Hampton Village.
But some Southold Town officials aren’t convinced that’s necessary.
A recent Yale University study recommended that Fishers Island residents establish their own governing boards and incorporate as the Village of Fishers Island.
That conclusion is the result of a 22-month project commissioned by the Island Community Board in January 2012.
“Fishers Island has a lot of issues going back 30 or 40 years; some have been addressed and many others haven’t,” said John Spofford, the Island Community Board’s president. “There hasn’t been a comprehensive effort undertaken by outsiders to pull all the issues together and propose possible and probable long-term solutions.”
Yale University’s Urban Design Workshop was hired to compile research and make recommendations to address long-standing problems associated with life on the island. The result, “Sustaining Fishers Island: A blueprint for protecting the future,” was submitted to the board in March.
A dwindling year-round population and lack of representation in local government thanks to the island’s distance from town offices were among the most pressing concerns identified by the study, which used research based in part on fact-finding interviews with residents, business owners and community leaders.
“Lack of local, comprehensive management of the Island and remote governance … has left the Island without the tools to address its needs and to plan for its future,” the study states.
In order to establish a long-term management plan and matching policy to support the plan, the study suggests the hamlet incorporate as the Village of Fishers Island. The proposal would pave the way for a fully staffed on-island government responsible for managing Fishers Island’s infrastructure, developing policy and recruiting and supporting year-round residents.
Lifelong Fishers Islander Ken Edwards, who also served for 28 years on Southold Town’s Planning Board, said further discussion of the proposal is needed going forward and pointed out that it’s not easy for island residents to be active in town government.
“The town does a lot for us but we are a unique hamlet in this town,” Mr. Edwards said. “For residents to attend a public hearing on the mainland, it is an all-day trip.”
Having its own board and the ability to implement island-specific policies could potentially give Fishers Island a better working relationship with Connecticut, which is closer than New York and is where many islanders work, Mr. Spofford said.
“We are tied to the state of Connecticut; that is where the ferries come from,” he said. Because Fishers Island isn’t its own legal entity, “it would be impossible to deal with any interstate issues that affect Fishers Island. It has been enormously cumbersome for transportation and for, most importantly, medical issues. Medical issues on the island are extremely well taken care of, but it is extremely cumbersome. It is the belief of a number of people that if we had standing we could simplify a great deal of what makes Fishers Island work.”
The seven-chapter, 122-page report also outlines a strategy to increase employment and build the year-round population as well improve infrastructure. However, those goals are contingent upon one first major step: incorporating as a village and negotiating tax arrangements with Southold Town, to which it would still belong.
“It is the belief of the authors that without coordination, accountability and oversight of the kind offered by a small government, these changes will not produce the desired effect of stemming the out-flowing population stream,” the study states.
Once the village is established, the community would be able to complete other goals, such as developing a new “west end” business district, creating more year-round housing and obtaining federal grant funding for island-wide improvements, such as supplying broadband access to all residents.
However, not all of Southold’s elected officials are convinced that Fishers Island needs to branch off from the town in order to accomplish those projects.
“I don’t see the need for it,” said Louisa Evans, Fishers Island justice and Town Board member. “The Yale study spoke a lot about how we would need to be an incorporated village in order to do the other recommendations written in the study. I don’t see how the study concludes that. I think most of what is in there is achievable without incorporating as a village and I think there are problems associated with incorporating as village — one being the expense. I can see it as something to look to in the future, when we hopefully have a greater year-round population here, but currently I don’t think it is the right thing.”
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell echoed Ms. Evans’ comments during the Town Board’s annual meeting on the island last Wednesday, after resident Peter Burr questioned the board’s position on the study.
“[The study] states that for Fishers Island to control its own future it needs to establish its own governance,” Mr. Russell said. “Then it goes into great detail on how to create a village. And it provides a lot of mathematical evaluations on what the cost of that village would be, but it never really answers the question of that first bold statement — that you need to create a village. It never answered, ‘Why?’
“Ultimately it is up to the community to decide. I am not a resident,” he continued. “I am certainly not invested personally in the island. It is not for me to say if you should create a village or not. That is a decision you need to make. You need to evaluate this board … and decide whether you can [better] represent the interests of Fishers Island.”
Still in the process of holding informal community meetings on the contents of the study, Mr. Spofford said the island residents have not reached a consensus on the proposal. Right now, his hope is that islanders will review the study and submit comments to the community board.